The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon was a series of highly controversial newspaper articles on child prostitution that first appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette on July 6 1885. Written by crusading editor W.T. Stead, the series was a tour de force of Victorian journalism. With sensational crossheads, such as "The Violation of Virgins" and "Strapping Girls Down", the Maiden Tribute threw respectable Victorians into a state of moral panic, and achieved, as a consequence, the implementation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which raised the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16. Stead and several of his accomplices were later brought to trial as a result of the unlawful investigative methods they used (see the Eliza Armstrong Case) and Stead himself served three months in prison. Nevertheless, today the scandal is regarded as a high watermark in early investigative journalism and an early but potent example of the power of the press.

Le vice anglais

Stead's account was widely translated and the revelation of "padded rooms for the purpose of stifling the cries of the tortured victims of lust and brutality" and the symbolic figure of "The Minotaur of London" confirmed European observers worst imaginings about "Le vice anglais" and inspired erotic writers to write of similar scenes set in London or involving sadistic English gentlemen. Such writers include D'Annunzio in Il Piacere, Paul-Jean Toulet in Monsieur de Paur (1898), Octave Mirbeau in Jardin des Supplices (1899) and Jean Lorrain in Monsieur de Phocas (1901).

Padded rooms

From The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon I: the Report of our Secret Commission W.T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, July 6, 1885)

"In my house," said a most respectable lady, who keeps a villa in the west of London, "you can enjoy the screams of the girl with the certainty that no one else hears them but yourself." But to enjoy to the full the exclusive luxury of revelling in the cries of the immature child, it is not necessary to have a padded room, a double chamber, or an underground room. "Here," said the keeper of a fashionable villa, where in days bygone a prince of the blood is said to have kept for some months one of his innumerable sultanas, as she showed her visitor over the well-appointed rooms, "Here is a room where you can be perfectly secure. The house stands in its own grounds. The walls are thick, there is a double carpet on the floor. The only window which fronts upon the back garden is doubly secured, first with shutters and then with heavy curtains. You lock the door and then you can do as you please. The girl may scream blue murder, but not a sound will be heard. The servants will be far away in the other end of the house. I only will be about seeing that all is snug." "But," remarked her visitor, "if you hear the cries of the child, you may yourself interfere, especially if, as may easily happen, I badly hurt and in fact all but kill the girl" "You will not kill her," she answered, "you have too much sense to kill the girl. Anything short of that, you can do as you please. As for me interfering, do you think I do not know my business?"

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